A Review of Papers, Please
I am, by all rights, an immigrant. My parents moved our family to the States for a better life, and a better education for my siblings and I. Having arrived in America at a young age, I didn’t recognize how grateful I should be for getting to be there. And as I’ve grown older, made friends with other immigrants, and learned more about the debates that occur over immigration, that gratefulness has increased. Trying to move to the USA is a difficult, tiring, and sometimes unfruitful process.
It is through this lens that I examine Papers, Please, a game that forced me to look at immigration from both sides of the fence, so to speak. Papers, Please places you in the shoes of an immigration inspector for the fictional country of Arstotzka. You examine each potential immigrant, and determine whether they may be approved for transit to the country, all while attempting to pay for your family’s food, heat, and medicine, keeping your nose clean with the higher-ups, and potentially interacting with other mysterious forces.
Papers, Please is mundane. About an hour into the game, you will establish a routine. The citizen arrives in front of your booth and presents you their passport. You check their height, their age, their date of birth, issuing city, and then decide whether they are allowed to enter Arstotzka or not. The list of things you must be wary of increases as the game progresses, causing you to juggle more and more information. The way Papers, Please handles control is tactile. As the difficulty of the game increases, you’ll find yourself shuffling multiple documents about, comparing passports to work permits to immunization records, culminating in the chu-chunk of your fate-deciding stamp.
This is a game that is claustrophobic in every sense of the word, right down to the limited space on your desk while examining all of your papers. It is drab and dreary, and the morose silence that hangs over you as you stamp that red REJECTED text onto a passport is so eerie that I had to play external music to lighten the mood. It’s difficult to claim that Papers, Please is more fun than it is morbid. But it’s unique, in the sense that I can’t think of another medium in which this game could be presented. Papers, Please, could only ever exist as a videogame. Watching an Immigration Inspector check a citizen’s passport is passive, and makes for a boring experience. However, become that Immigration Inspector, and the experience is suddenly tense, thoughtful, and for me, informative. The belief that books place the reader in the protagonist’s shoes is amplified ten fold when playing a videogame, as Papers, Please demonstrates.
Mechanically speaking, Papers, Please is a mildly interesting hidden-object game. How it shakes things up is through the scripted events that occur over the game’s 30 in-game days. At first, you are simply a cog in the machine: following the rules given to you, rejecting those who have false information, accepting those who don’t. All of a sudden, a woman pleads to you about how she has not seen her son in Arstotzka for 30 years. A husband’s passport is cleared, but his wife’s has expired. Then there are the guards, who give you a bonus for detaining citizens. That’s money that could be used for your daughter’s illness.
As I said, Papers, Please forced me to think about games outside the context of “fun.” Papers, Please is a game, in that it requires interactivity, but I hesitate to call it entertaining. It’s monotonous. It’s grueling. Sometimes it gave me a headache. But it’s also fascinating.
It fascinates me because it forced me to constantly evaluate every action I took, and every moral I choose to believe in, both in and outside of the game. Letting citizens who have invalid information enter Arstotzka carries the risk of being penalized by the authorities. But I wanted to let that mother enter the country to see her son, even though her passport had expired. Because I’m all too aware of what it would feel like to be rejected. I had to pause the game to make my decision. I had to weigh the pros and cons of doing what I was about to do. Was it really worth it?
Papers, Please is a fascinating look into what it’s like being put into a frustrating, morally ambiguous position, all while offering solid mechanics that blend into the larger story at hand. Papers, Please does an incredible job of fostering your empathy by destroying it. It is not a fun game – but it is a great one.